Switching from native to web apps: an experiment

Warning This article was written over six months ago, and may contain outdated information.

I recent­ly had call to do a fac­to­ry reset on my phone, and as I began the process of rein­stalling all my apps again decid­ed to try an exper­i­ment instead: to see if mobile web apps (or, sites) were up to the job of replac­ing native apps. With the forth­com­ing release of Fire­fox OS this is some­thing I’ve been very curi­ous about, but with­in days I was back to using native again. I’ll explain why, but lay out some of the more pos­i­tive find­ings before I do. Note that I was using Chrome on Android for my exper­i­ment, but I think the find­ings should hold true for most brows­er and OS combos.

The positives

Some mobile apps are extreme¬≠ly well made and I would have no dif¬≠fi¬≠cul¬≠ty at all in switch¬≠ing to them today. Of spe¬≠cial note are Twit¬≠ter and Face¬≠book, which have ‚ÄĒ as far as I can tell ‚ÄĒ full fea¬≠ture par¬≠i¬≠ty (in all the fea¬≠tures I use, any¬≠way) with their native sib¬≠lings. Twit¬≠ter in par¬≠tic¬≠u¬≠lar have tak¬≠en a lot of time and effort to pro¬≠vide a first-class expe¬≠ri¬≠ence on the mobile web.

The Guardian‚Äôs mobile site is also beau¬≠ti¬≠ful¬≠ly designed ‚ÄĒ bet¬≠ter even than the native app, in my opin¬≠ion ‚ÄĒ and BBC News and Sport are also of the high¬≠est qual¬≠i¬≠ty. Google‚Äôs mobile apps ‚ÄĒ Gmail, Cal¬≠en¬≠dar, Read¬≠er, and Maps ‚ÄĒ are not quite as slick as the native ver¬≠sions, but are undoubt¬≠ed¬≠ly very func¬≠tion¬≠al and usable.

The negatives

A few of the apps I use fre¬≠quent¬≠ly were just not up to scratch on mobile. I have to sin¬≠gle out Foursquare who, some¬≠what sur¬≠pris¬≠ing¬≠ly for such a mobile-focused ser¬≠vice, have a shock¬≠ing¬≠ly poor mobile web offer¬≠ing, not opti¬≠mised for mod¬≠ern phones at all. The Google+ app was pret¬≠ty poor while I was test¬≠ing, although a new ver¬≠sion has just been released which seems much bet¬≠ter. Insta¬≠gram‚Äôs mobile site is okay, but is pure¬≠ly for con¬≠sump¬≠tion ‚ÄĒ there‚Äôs no way to add new pho¬≠tos. But these apps were nice to haves rather than essen¬≠tial, so I could have done with¬≠out them if I‚Äôd switched to an all-web OS.

The prob­lem came with the lack of sys­tem set­tings. For exam­ple, unlike Niels Matthi­js I like to have noti­fi­ca­tions for cer­tain con­tent, and web apps on Android don’t have access to notifications.

More seri­ous­ly, there is no inte­gra­tion between apps at all; unlike with Android’s Intents, I can’t begin a task in one app then send it to anoth­er; each mobile web app is an island unto itself, so I can’t tweet a pho­to from my gallery, or save a link to Pock­et or Evernote.

The biggest annoy¬≠ance, how¬≠ev¬≠er, was that run¬≠ning an instance of an app would¬≠n‚Äôt make it vis¬≠i¬≠ble in oth¬≠er tabs; for exam¬≠ple, if I had Twit¬≠ter in tab A then fol¬≠lowed a link to a Tweet in tab B, a new instance of Twit¬≠ter would open in tab C. My tabs soon filled up with mul¬≠ti¬≠ple instances of the same app.

The conclusion

It‚Äôs like¬≠ly that if I were com¬≠ing at a web-based OS afresh I would devel¬≠op new habits and ways of work¬≠ing to achieve my behav¬≠iour¬≠al goals. How¬≠ev¬≠er, as a con¬≠vert from a sys¬≠tem that works for me, with inter-app oper¬≠a¬≠tion and noti¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tions, I found myself extreme¬≠ly lim¬≠it¬≠ed and became frus¬≠trat¬≠ed quite quick¬≠ly. This means that I don‚Äôt feel I can switch to web apps per¬≠ma¬≠nent¬≠ly right now, and that‚Äôs a shame because in some cas¬≠es I did¬≠n‚Äôt miss native apps at all.

All the prob¬≠lems I men¬≠tioned above are prob¬≠lems that Fire¬≠fox OS will have to solve, and I believe that they have the APIs to do it; how¬≠ev¬≠er, if an out¬≠reach process to get big apps to use Web Activ¬≠i¬≠ties and Noti¬≠fi¬≠ca¬≠tions isn‚Äôt under¬≠way already, it should be start¬≠ed very soon.

Update: It occurred to me after writ­ing this that my men­tal mod­el of what I expect from apps would prob­a­bly be very dif­fer­ent if I were an iOS user, where each app is essen­tial­ly an island any­way, and noti­fi­ca­tions are gen­er­al­ly much few­er or non-exis­tent. How­ev­er, the issue with mul­ti­ple instances of an app being opened in new tabs is annoy­ing regard­less of your cur­rent choice of platform.

4 comments on
“Switching from native to web apps: an experiment”

  1. The thing is that I con¬≠sid¬≠er most apps ‚Äúislands‚ÄĚ as you call them. I use Face¬≠book for check¬≠ing updates. I nev¬≠er go from Face¬≠book to a dif¬≠fer¬≠ent app to con¬≠tin¬≠ue one action. I go to Face¬≠book and when I‚Äôm fin¬≠ished check¬≠ing updates I‚Äôm off to do some¬≠thing else.

    I pre¬≠fer native for pro¬≠duc¬≠tion too, but I believe there are way to many con¬≠sump¬≠tion apps out there, apps that offer lit¬≠tle to no extra ben¬≠e¬≠fits com¬≠pared to their web coun¬≠ter¬≠part (like Twit¬≠ter and Face¬≠book). Like you men¬≠tioned though, peo¬≠ple have dif¬≠fer¬≠ent needs and work¬≠flows, so what works for one guy may not work for the next.

    PS: I‚Äôm hav¬≠ing trou¬≠bles with G+ since it updat¬≠ed to the new ver¬≠sion. Some¬≠how the con¬≠tent does¬≠n‚Äôt resize to my screen any¬≠more. Google real¬≠ly does¬≠n‚Äôt like MS lately :)

  2. One thing I prob¬≠a¬≠bly should have men¬≠tioned ‚ÄĒ and will prob¬≠a¬≠bly update to include ‚ÄĒ is that your expe¬≠ri¬≠ence may be quite dif¬≠fer¬≠ent if you‚Äôre an iOS user, used to each app being inde¬≠pen¬≠dent; I tend to have a joined-up work¬≠flow which car¬≠ries on between apps quite often. How¬≠ev¬≠er, the prob¬≠lem with mul¬≠ti¬≠ple ver¬≠sions of the same app open¬≠ing in dif¬≠fer¬≠ent tabs is true regard¬≠less of platform.

  3. [‚Ķ] Switch¬≠ing from native to web apps: an exper¬≠i¬≠ment (Bro¬≠ken Links) [‚Ķ]

  4. RT @stopsatgreen: Blogged: Switch­ing from native to web apps: an exper­i­ment http://t.co/XhbZ6UlvNL